Alongside the gully cricket that dominates sports on India's streets, badminton too has its well-grounded fan-base. Enthusiasts take over the lanes, with or without nets, and often play for pleasure. The more serious among them then go on to fashion full-sized courts in the open, or make use of indoor opportunities, whose numbers are increasing.
Nineteen-year-old Ruthvika Shivani Gadde, the newly crowned champion at the Russian Grand Prix in Vladivostok this past Sunday, is one such player. What began as a casual foray into the world of badminton has turned into a distinct role in the continuous storming of the world stage by Indian players.
The teenager took up badminton as a seven-year old, getting interested after watching her father play with his friends. Over the next six years, the interest turned into commitment. According to Sudhakar Reddy, who was Gadde’s initial coach during her training in Khammam, Telangana, she sharpened her repertoire of mix-and-match shots to bait and confuse her opponents.
One of the others things she did was to play doubles with boys. While their physicality made Gadde work harder, her techniques refined her game, making her stand out.
Once Gadde joined the Gopichand Academy in 2012, at the time the Indian badminton contingent was making a case for itself at the London Olympics, her game was further nuanced by Pullela Gopichand himself. Without overwriting her initial style of play, he has lent her the distinctiveness that by now has come to be a trademark of all his protégés, from Saina Nehwal to recent Olympic silver medallist PV Sindhu.
The Gopichand effect
Eight years since the establishment of his Academy in 2008 – seven years went into conceptualising, infrastructural planning and development since he came back with the All England Open in 2001 – Gopichand has become the driving force behind India's ever-growing roster of badminton champions.
Charting, mapping, observing and improving the development of the players, each with a different style, Gopichand has also ensured that his wards build one another's success rather than engage in one-upmanship. That in itself encapsulates the objective with which Gopichand had embarked upon his coaching journey, stating, “I could win the All England at a late stage at 27. My time was done, but I wanted to do something for the younger players. And the academy provided me that opportunity.”
In the process, Gopichand hasn’t lost sight of the fact that the players have to be healthy, and physically fit to give their best. Some of the players in his academy, including Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap, were personally convinced by him to include meat in their diet to improve their game.
When it came to Gadde though, Gopichand had altogether different advice.
The 2016 story
Diagnosed with hepatitis in February 2015, immediately after she won the National Championships, Gadde found herself confined to the bed. She wanted to push herself to play nonetheless, but Gopichand refused. “I was bed-ridden for three months and I couldn’t move. I wanted to play and twice I went to the academy within three months. But Gopichand sir told me to take rest and not to aggravate my health. He told me to treat it like a holiday and enjoy the time with my family.”
But heeding Gopichand’s words did help Gadde immensely, not only in 2015 but also in 2016. Not many people remember it now, but Gadde defeated Sindhu 21-11, 22-20 in the final of the South Asian Games in February.
Three months later, in May, as part of the Indian Uber Cup team, Gadde put up a good show that saw India reach the semi-final. Gadde played four rubbers, three in the round robin stages and one in the quarter-final. She won her rubbers against Australia and Germany after defeating Tiffany Ho 21-5, 21-11 and Yvonne Li 21-5, 21-15 respectively, but lost to Sayaka Sato of Japan 7-21, 14-21. In the quarter-final against Thailand, Gadde played Nitchaon Jindapol and won 21-18, 21-16.
She put herself on the map of better recognition after winning her maiden Grand Prix in Vladivostok, beating the home favourite Evgeniya Kosetskaya 21-10, 21-13. Ranked 59th, Kosetskaya was 10 places above her and had knocked out the top seed and fellow Russian Natalia Perminova 19-21, 21-16, 21-8.
The win will see Gadde break into the top 50 of the BWF world rankings, with an addition of 5,500 ranking points that is the most awarded to the champion, when the rankings come out on Thursday, October 13.
The Road ahead
The Grand Prix tournaments are fifth in the hierarchy of badminton events. The World Championships and Olympics offer the winner 12,000 points, while the Super Series Masters Final and Super Series Premiers offer 11,000 points. The Super Series events are third with the winners being awarded 9,200 points, while the Grand Prix Gold tournaments give the winner 7,000 points.
Talking about her win, an ecstatic Gadde had remarked, “My fitness levels were not the best prior to the tournament as I had a strained thigh. But I strategised well and felt confident during my games. Evgeniya is stylistically very similar to me and I had that in mind while playing her. I’m happy to have won my first Grand Prix and hope this is the start of many more!”
She will get her first chance to prove that at the Dutch Open this week, where her first match is against Lee Zii Yii of Malaysia.